May 1, 2009 Volume 110 Number 9

Fred Meyer remodels nonunion, stymies UFCW in The Dalles

Fred Meyer, at one time a reliable employer of union labor, has been using nonunion contractors in remodeling projects at Portland-area stores. Meanwhile, some workers on the inside — represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 — are having trouble getting a first union contract.

Parent company Kroger has continued to be profitable during the recession, even paying dividends. But it is cutting corners when it comes to a store-by-store remodeling project, say local building trades union representatives. Fred Meyer merged with Cincinnati-headquartered Kroger in 1999.

“We don’t even have a chance to bid,” said Bob Childers, an international representative of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons International Association.

Members of Portland-based Cement Masons Local 555 would have had lots of work on the remodels: The company is moving from linoleum tile to polished concrete, with as many as 250 locations slated for remodel. The work involves removing tile and adhesive, grinding concrete, adding densifier, and finishing with fine-grain sanding and staining. But Kroger signed a nationwide re-flooring deal with a nonunion contractor that is using $12-an-hour Craigslist recruits, Childers said. The going rate for union members to do that work would have been $30 an hour plus $13 an hour in benefits.

OPCMIA top leadership met in Cincinnati with Kroger and offered a break on the union rate, but didn’t come away with a deal.

The shut-out burns local cement masons, Childers says, because the union’s health and welfare trust contracts with Kroger as a pharmacy benefit manager. Union members get a deal on prescription drugs, but agree to buy them only at Fred Meyer pharmacies (where, incidentally, pharmacists are also union-represented.)

“They’ve got union health trust money going in their door, and they turn around and hire nonunion contractors that don’t even provide health benefits to their workers,” said John Mohlis, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council.

To deliver that message, Mohlis joined Tim Foster and Clif Davis of Electrical Workers Local 48 at a March 18 meeting with several Kroger representatives — one local manager in charge of construction and a Kroger official from Cincinnati from the pharmacy benefit management division.

“Every hour one of our members works is money in Fred Meyer’s pocket, so I don’t understand why they’re not using us,” said Foster, who is assistant business manager at Local 48.

Through the union-affiliated Harrison Health and Welfare Trust, Local 48 members spent almost $800,000 last year at Fred Meyer pharmacies, but union electrical contractors aren’t being considered for work on the remodel. Foster said union-signatory contractors bid on 10 large remodeling projects, even using union market recovery funds to lower the cost of the bids, and nine of the 10 contracts went to nonunion competitors at roughly half the wages and benefits.

Union electricians have done a lot of work for Fred Meyer in the past.

Angry about the shutout, several local building trades union representatives have begun asking members not to spend money at Fred Meyer, and have distributed fliers outside Fred Meyer stores asking the public not to shop there.

The public is also starting to hear from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. At the Fred Meyer store in The Dalles, Oregon, where grocery workers have been union for years, a group of about 50 non-food workers voted to join the union in November 2007. They still don’t have a union contract, even though the company has numerous non-food contracts at other locations. Bargaining has been going on since February 2008, and a federal mediator is now involved in the negotiations. One sticking point is a well-established union bottom line: “union security” i.e., whether dues will be voluntary. Fred Meyer wants to make it an “open shop.”

So far, Local 555 has placed several ads in the Dalles Chronicle, created a public campaign Web site,, and on April 23 held a rally and march in The Dalles.

Meanwhile, Portland-area grocery, meat, and central checkout workers at Fred Meyer, Safeway, and Albertsons have been working under extended contracts since July 26, 2008. The grocers bargain jointly as Allied Grocers Inc.

Negotiations were held April 28-29, but the outcome of those talks were not available at press time.

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